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Led By Lydia Ko, Youth Movement Is In Full Swing On The LPGA Tour

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Ko on winning Player of the Year award (1:46)

LPGA golfer Lydia Ko tells espnW's Michael Collins how excited she is to win the Player of the Year award. (1:46)

When Hyo Joo Kim won last week's Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic, the age of the champion wasn't a shock. That Kim, only 20, started the 2016 season with a victory merely reinforced a dominant theme of 2015: The women's game is getting younger.

It was Kim's third LPGA title, her first coming in a major, the 2014 Evian Championship, when she shot a major-record 61 en route to victory two months after turning 19. She topped a leaderboard in the Bahamas that included Megan Khang, an 18-year-old rookie making her pro debut, and Charley Hull, a 19-year-old from England. Sei Young Kim, 22, who was the 2015 Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year, tied for second.

"They're physically ready, they're mentally ready and they're very, very competitive," says veteran instructor David Leadbetter, who coaches 18-year-old phenom Lydia Ko, who already has 10 LPGA victories. "It's not the sort of trial and error it used to be. They have the tools -- great instruction, workout coaches, mental teachers -- and they're doing a program at a much younger age, so they're going to develop more quickly."

Ko, who starts her 2016 tournament schedule at this week's Coates Golf Championship in Ocala, Florida, won five times in 2015 and had the company of plenty of other successful younger golfers. Fifteen of 31 tournaments were won by players younger than 23 -- including a win by Canadian Brooke Henderson at age 17 -- with 14 different winners younger than 25. There were just four victories by a golfer 30 or older, which goes a long way toward explaining the average age of the winners: 24.

Just 20 years earlier, a majority of the tournaments on the 1995 LPGA schedule (20 of 33) were won by golfers 30 or older. There were no teenage champions, and the average age of winners was 31. A decade ago, the average age of winners had dropped to a shade below 27.

Starting the 2016 season, a minority of LPGA members in the top 90 on the priority exemption list are 30 or older. This season began with five teenagers, 61 players in their 20s, 20 in their 30s and only four 40 or older among the top 90.

"When I look around, I see younger and younger kids," said 38-year-old Angela Stanford, a member of the winning 2015 United States Solheim Cup team. "I think it's a combination of factors: more instruction, more fitness, more nutrition. They're just more aware of those things. My question would be their longevity, but right now the trend is younger."

Beyond the information that wasn't available to prior generations, there is the way success by young players motivates their peers.

"I think Lydia inspired a lot of kids," says Khang, who made it through all three stages of LPGA qualifying to earn a spot on tour. "She definitely inspired me, knowing that she won two LPGA tournaments as an amateur. I'm thinking, 'If she can do it, I can do it.'"

Occasionally, very young golfers have made their mark on the LPGA, going back to teenagers Alice and Marlene Bauer in the tour's early days in the 1950s. Hall of Famer Amy Alcott won in her third start as a professional, a day after her 19th birthday, in 1975. Paula Creamer won as an 18-year-old rookie in 2005, at the time the youngest winner of a multiround LPGA tournament.

Since the arrival of Creamer and fellow American Morgan Pressel -- who won the 2007 Kraft Nabisco Championship at the then-record age of 18 -- the youth movement has expanded and accelerated, populated by precocious players from around the globe capitalizing on what is available to them.

Hall of Famer and Golf Channel commentator Judy Rankin, who turned pro as a 17-year-old in 1962, is stunned by the youthful golfers she analyzes today.

"It's unbelievably different than my time," said Rankin, who won her first event six years after joining the tour. "I had a lot of ability for my time. I'm not even sure we would call that ability today. My broadcast partner Terry Gannon laughs at me about being in awe of some of this, but I know how hard it is. And the magnitude of what they can do now is really something."

Take Henderson, for example. She set out on the LPGA without exempt status in 2015 but took advantage of sponsor exemptions, got into other tournaments through Monday qualifying, and was a consistent presence on leaderboards prior to winning the Cambia Portland Classic by 8 strokes last August.

"I think the main thing is the 'no-fear' aspect," said Henderson. "Lydia and Lexi Thompson and Jessica Korda are huge role models for me. They were [winning] at such a young age. The more that happens, the more young kids are going to try to chase after their dreams a little bit sooner. You've got to go for it when you're ready. It's different for different people. Stacy Lewis went to university and had a successful career there, then came out on tour."

Alison Lee, who was on last year's American Solheim Cup team as a 20-year-old rookie, is competing on tour while going to college at UCLA. She cautions that the superior top-level golf being played by Ko and a smattering of other teens is the exception rather than the rule for that age bracket, but acknowledges that "it's all about confidence and experience" regardless of a player's age.

"Why not give someone an opportunity to do something they're passionate about?" Christina Kim said of golfers pursuing pro careers at younger ages. Kim captured two of her three LPGA titles before she was 22 and now, at 31, enjoys mentoring tour newcomers the way experienced players such as Meg Mallon and Nancy Lopez counseled her when she came on tour.

"I'd like to think that the kids these days are out here because they want to be out here and that it's not so much about the parents forcing them," Kim said. "It's something they love, not something they just do. The thing is, how many times are you going to come across a Lydia Ko or a Brooke Henderson, children who are so gifted and mature beyond their years like that?"

Despite the excitement the special young stars bring to women's golf, there are negative ramifications as well. When players start intense golf journeys sooner, they likely will end them sooner as well.

"I think you're going to find careers are going to be shorter," Leadbetter said. "You've only got so many shots in the tank, and if you use them all up by the time you're 25, what have you got left?"

Leadbetter said he fears more players might be subject to injuries that come with such early immersion in the sport. He cites one of his former students, Pearl Jin, who was a top junior golfer with eyes on a pro career before developing a devastating injury to her left arm.

"When the surgeons opened her up, they said she had the tendons of a 40-year-old," Leadbetter said. "This girl quit golf when she was 16. There is a dark side, and parents and coaches have to be aware of this and have patience. Young players are working so hard on their games, we're seeing injuries we haven't seen before."

Hitting many practice balls off artificial mats at driving ranges can lead to problems, particularly for juniors. Grooving a reliable swing through repetition can come with a cost.

"It doesn't sound like a big deal but it is," Leadbetter said. "Mats aren't very forgiving, and when someone is 10, 11 or 12 and is pounding balls for hour after hour with bodies that aren't fully mature, as they tend to do in Asia and California, the joints suffer."

Ko has been bothered by left-wrist issues and had to have fluid drained from cysts two years ago.

"There's no pain right now, which is good," Ko said during the season-ending event last year. "But growing up as a junior and hitting a lot of balls off mats, that's not really the best thing. It puts a lot of force and pressure into the hand. We try to get away from that now."

To juniors trying to follow in her footsteps, Ko's cautionary words ought to be as big a directional sign for them as her unprecedented success. But the lure of the tour is strong.

"Every sport, you need to put 100 percent in because nothing comes easy," said Khang, who tied for 11th last week. "Being 18, it's kind of a dream come true to be on tour. I think it's great if you can handle all the pressure and the immenseness of this tour. Once you're out here, you're going to have fun and enjoy your life."